Habits are supported by our environment

As I pack up my world, and move it down the road, I was both reminded of, and came across, notes for this essay. I polished it up just for you, my reading audience. Comments welcome–I feel like this is still a rough draft, of something longer.

Habits are embedded in your environment. When you want to alter or acquire a habit, it will go much smoother if you support that with a change in your environment. Rituals can help us transition between habits. Habit changes require upkeep–you must maintain the change until it becomes habitual–and rituals and environment changes can reduce the cost.

I could probably stop there, but let’s look at it a bit more.


First, what’s a habit? I think it is a pattern of behavior that has become, well, habitual: it is your default way of approaching a situation, and requires less effort than other ways. This instead of that. Habits don’t include things that are necessary, but it might include a style of doing that. Because habits are somewhat arbitrary, conventional solutions to one of life’s problems, they are learned, or emerge over time. Most importantly, habits can be altered or replaced with a different habit. That’s what we’re here to talk about–changing habits.

Off the top of my head I came up with a list of habits people often want to acquire: a healthier diet, exercise, tidiness. Biking instead of driving. Consistent timeliness. A whole set of habits fall into the category of skill practice–for example, getting in the habit of writing, or of practicing the piano, or of thinking through emails before sending them.

And there are less obvious habits. Monogamy, for some, is an acquired habit, perhaps reinforced by the ritual of a closed marriage. Or the habit might be depending on someone for support or validation–usually only brought into the light when that person becomes unavailable for one reason or another.


Habits are linked to your environment: you have, over time, adjusted your environment to support your current habits, or you have acquired your habits because of your environment.

I’m using the term ‘environment’ broadly here. It includes your physical environment–the furniture, spaces, and journeys you encounter each day. It also includes your social environment–the people you see and in what capacity and quantity, plus your opinions of each other, and the social structures you move within. And it includes your mental environment–what thoughts recur in your mind, what is excluded.

Each of these has an impact on your chosen behavior. It’s commonly accepted that if you’re trying to eat fewer Cheesy Poofs, it helps to not leave a bag around your living room mocking you. And we all know someone who has friends that are ‘bad for them’; this is easier to see with young adults and teens, whose motives can sometimes be easier to identify (as long as they’re not your own offspring). And we know that we probably ought to stop obsessing over that embarrassing situation back in the 7th grade, but it still guides our behavior in small margin.

What we don’t think about as much are the structures we create in society to support our changes in habit, to alter these environments. If we recognize them, we can take advantage of this structure to help us achieve our goals.


Rituals are one way to mark a transition. A ritual can help with changing your environment and your habits in a number of ways.

Again I am using “ritual” broadly, and not just in a mystical sense. One example: when I was three, I decided that bottles were for babies, despite lugging mine absolutely everywhere. And I summoned my atomic family to the kitchen, to have a grand ‘pitching of the bottle’ ritual. The bottle hit the garbage can–and my mother secretly fished it out and washed it out when I left the room, sure that I would be crying for it soon. But I didn’t–I was done, and I had marked the occasion in a way that publicly stated my intention, and, in my mind, getting rid of the bottle.

Marriage is a ritual; same with funerals, two the most overt rituals our society retains. But so is the pre-interview ritual, or the housewarming party, graduation, bottle-pitching, or even asking someone out. Once you start looking, they’re everywhere, and learning to use them properly is powerful.

Rituals explicitly state your intention to change, to yourself and to your witnesses. Everyone in a ritual knows at least on the surface what the common intention is, even if the details may not be obvious. When you walk into your boss’s office and say, “So, I’ve accepted a new job,” you’ve started a ritual between the two of you, and you’ve got to see it through.

Rituals can also start the change, causing the environment modifications necessary to begin or fulfilling obligations. That conversation with your boss up there? It’ll take some backpedalling and unritualizing to halt the change; the gears are already in motion. In a marriage, there are legal, social, and religious changes that occur at specific steps in the ritual, and they can only be achieved by that ritual. Not all environment require a ritual–you can stop smoking without one–but for some we still require certain incantations.

Rituals also create lasting mementos of your intention to change. Marriage, again, is the most obvious one–for most people, you get this magic item that you wear on your finger to remind you constantly. But you also get a certificate, and for the first year the top of a cake, or in some traditions a bottle of wine. And you get the memories of a dramatic and sensorily rich event, the memories in your friends’ minds, the pictures, the gifts, the embarrassing YouTube clip. Your friends remind you that you are married, and ask about your spouse. All of these serve to remind you of that intention to change: of who you were at that moment in transition, and who you are now.

And finally, rituals can change the physical and social environments to support the change, without actually causing it. Things like that pitching the bottle, or throwing out that bag of cigarettes, or taking that toxic person’s number out of your phone. They are only a gesture–but they does relieve you of the temptation to fall back into old habits.


Life requires upkeep. Self-care rituals take up a third of our day or more, if we include sleep. (We ritualize many of these events too, but for slightly different purposes.) Earning our keep tends to take about another third, leaving a scant third (if we’re lucky) for creation, interaction with our friends and family, and exploration.

Habits, too, require upkeep. This cost is highest when the habit is newly acquired–it hasn’t become second-nature yet. You must expend mental effort to remember, “not that, do this”.

This effort is increased if you’re still stuck in the old environment. A smoker who quits but still hangs out with his friends who are on a cig break must build some pretty glittering armor to defend himself. Inside, a voice is saying, “I miss the old way. People expect me to act the old way. I have constant reminders–bad or good–of the old way. I have all the tools and skills for the old way. It was comfortable.”

Changing the environment quells some of these voices. Still have the spoon and rubber hose and syringe? Get rid of the tools of the old way (and seek professional help, as you’ve got some nasty physical withdrawal symptoms to deal with). Still have reminders of the old situation? Well, that’s fine–but re-contextualize the memories into the ‘new’ you. Do all your friends still expect to meet the old you, or who worry they are losing who you used to be? Ask them along on your journey to the new you, and you may suddenly find yourself surrounded by supporters who are eager to hang out with the new you.

Environment changes can also act as poke-yoke–idiot-proofing, a term borrowed from the Toyota Method of continuous improvement. The idea is to make it much harder to err–for example, most automatic cars won’t start unless the shifter is in Park, making it much harder to launch your car into the wall during ignition. While you can manage to do the wrong thing, it’s just plain easier to do it the right way, and you quickly form a good habit, supported by your physical environment. Not having those Cheesy Poofs around? Poke-yoke. Making it easier to do the new thing reduces habit upkeep, easing your transition.

Finally, recurring rituals can help reinforce the change. AA meetings are an example of a functional ritual that helps some persevere in their commitment to change, both by having them restate their intentions publically, and by providing an environment that reflects that change. Renewal of vows is another obvious one, but a more important ritual to reinforce the habit of love might be the daily morning kiss, on the steps before work.


When attempting to change our habits, we often neglect two powerful tools at our disposal: environmental changes, and rituals. Without changing our environment, we sabotage our attempts at changing; without rituals, we make it harder to initiate and maintain our changes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s